How celebrity PSAs reduced demand for an ancient dietary tradition in the most populated country on earth—and helped save threatened shark populations
Beijing, 2008. The whole world was watching China. In the years and months leading up to the Olympic Games, scrutiny was at an all-time high. The Chinese government knew it. And WildAid knew it.
WildAid, an international nonprofit that seeks to end the illegal wildlife trade, decided to adopt the spirit of the games: go big or go home. They asked the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for support. They recruited basketball superstar Yao Ming and other athletes. They built an elaborate advertising strategy and filmed high-impact, dramatic public service announcements (PSAs).
And then they launched a countrywide campaign aimed at reducing the demand for shark fin soup. The timing was perfect, the message was positive (“We can help save the sharks”), the PSAs featured Chinese athletes, and the campaign supported the Chinese government's narrative about going green and cracking down on corruption.
The Packard Foundation is one of the world's largest funders of Ocean Conservation. They invest in work that promotes sustainable fishing, saves endangered animals, and preserves the rich biodiversity needed for healthy oceans.
From 2007 to 2013, the Packard Foundation invested approximately $1.7 million in WildAid’s shark fin campaign. WildAid leveraged that and supplementary support from other funders into an impressive amount of media placement in China. In 2013, for example, WildAid secured $164 million of pro-bono media coverage via state and private media partnerships. The rise in public awareness was dramatic. The demand for shark fin soup fell.
The Packard Foundation committed to the campaign for the duration.
Nearly a decade later, WildAid continues to run a widespread media campaign in China with the Packard Foundation's support. Surveys indicate remarkable shifts in attitudes and behavior.
WildAid's goals were clearly defined:
Target the primary consumers of shark fin soup: government decision-makers, media elites, corporate leaders, celebrities, cultural icons, and the urban wealthy. Shark fin soup is a status symbol, and WildAid wanted to make not eating it the new norm. WildAid works hard to reduce shark fin consumption in other countries, as well, though China represents the largest market by far.
Raise awareness about why shark fin soup is a problem. Educate consumers about the importance of sharks, the inhumane killing practices of the shark fin trade, and the need for marine biodiversity. Make sure people understand what they're eating—“shark fin” soup translates as “fish wing” soup in Chinese, and is often made from a variety of different substitutes. Reduce the demand for shark fin soup in China, the world's largest market for shark fin.
Build public and political support for a government ban on shark fin soup.
China Dive, a scuba diving organization
Yew Chung International School, where many affluent Chinese families, expatriates and diplomats send their children
Aquariums across ChinaThey Went After Industry Pledges
They asked hotels, restaurants, and airlines to stop serving, selling, and transporting shark products.They Involved the Government
WildAid regularly works with government officials and departments in China, and in other key countries such as the U.S., in order to keep them up-to-date on the issues. The Chinese government at the time was working to reduce corruption and conspicuous spending. Lavish state banquets that served shark fin soup were one sign of corruption—and so WildAid’s campaign was a means of achieving the government’s desire to appear more austere.They Leveraged $164 Million of Air Time
This campaign is one of the largest of its kind—ever. In 2013, WildAid secured $164 million of pro-bono media placement via state and private media partnerships in China.
The goal of the Packard Foundation’s Ocean Conservation program is to preserve “healthy oceans that support a diversity and abundance of marine life which can withstand pressures over time, providing people and communities with food, stable livelihoods and economic, social and cultural benefits.”
Sharks, as one of the top predators in the marine ecosystem, are an essential part of that vision. WildAid’s shark fin campaign has contributed significantly to the conservation of shark species targeted by the shark fin trade.Banned by the Government
The Chinese government implemented a ban on shark fin from all state banquets in 2013 as part of its anti-corruption campaign. The Hong Kong government followed.Banned from Businesses
Twenty-four airlines, three shipping lines, and five hotel groups have banned shark fin from their operations.85% of Consumers Quit
Eighty-five percent of Chinese consumers surveyed online said they gave up shark fin soup within the past three years, and two-thirds of these respondents cited awareness campaigns as a reason for ending their shark fin consumption.82% Decline in Sales
Shark fin vendors in Guangzhou, China, report an 82 percent decline in sales and a decrease in prices (47 percent retail and 57 percent wholesale) over the past two years.80% Decline in Prices
The decline in demand caused prices for shark fins to plummet. The trade was no longer lucrative for shark fishermen. Recent surveys show a decline of 80 percent in prices paid to fishermen from 2007 levels in Tanjung Luar and Lombok in Indonesia and a decline of 19 percent in prices since 2002–03 in Central Maluku, Southeastern Maluku and East Nusa Tenggara.Falling Restaurant Orders
Of 20 Beijing restaurant representatives, 19 reported a significant decline in shark fin consumption. All agreed that WildAid PSAs featuring Yao Ming had “definitely raised awareness among customers.”
Get their attention.
Unlikely allies can bring exponential, added lift.
Win hearts and minds.
Timing is everything.
What commands attention? High-profile spokespeople and high-quality media. WildAid’s glossy PSAs help them compete for attention in a saturated media landscape. They also choose high-impact spokespeople, who are respected within the markets they’re targeting. WildAid works with Chinese athletes and celebrities to reach Chinese audiences. It helps to understand the local conditions in which you’re acting.
WildAid’s government relationships were crucial to the shark fin campaign. It’s fairly unusual for an American NGO to work so closely with the Chinese government, a close relationship that some criticized. But WildAid took a chance, and that partnership was one of the keys to the success of the campaign and the measurable reduction in shark fin demand. WildAid procured pro-bono airtime due to long relationships with Chinese media companies and the government.
“WildAid had anti–shark finning ads running inside of government offices. You don’t achieve what they have without deep relationships and really hard work,” said Bernd Cordes, former program officer at the Packard Foundation.
Campaigns take consistency and time. WildAid has been running the shark fin campaign in China for close to a decade now. The Packard Foundation’s support made that longevity possible. It takes time for a message to reach people, time for that message to affect behavior, and longer still for that change to be seen in trade and supply chains.
“We built and built this campaign, constantly growing and layering the messages over time,” Peter Knights, President of WildAid, said.
Markets are driven by both supply and demand. In a global economy, it may be easier to win hearts and minds than to achieve policy wins (and keep in mind that policies mean little to nothing unless they are enforced). While it may seem like a less direct path to mount a campaign aimed at reducing the demand side of a market, it may be more effective in the long run.
The spotlight of the 2008 Beijing Olympics created an opportunity that otherwise might not have been there. The Chinese government was trying to put forward a narrative about being “green” when the world was watching. Millions of people saw the WildAid PSAs aired around that time. That moment helped open the door for WildAid. They’ve been widening the opening ever since.
WildAid’s mission is to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes. They envision a world where people no longer buy wildlife products such as shark fin, elephant ivory and rhino horn.
While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products by persuading consumers through an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and global network of media partners, and by strengthening enforcement.